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The late David McCalden, (1951 – 1990) was the founder of the Ulster-American Heritage Foundation.

The eleventh night

David McCalden recalls his Belfast boyhood

Every year of my childhood, the most important event of the year was not the Twelfth (the 12th of July) but the night immediately preceding it, “Bonefire Night” (sic). Preparations for the celebrations started weeks earlier, as dirty-faced children scoured the entire area for combustibles for the 11th night bonfire. Competition between rival streets was savage, as which street could have the biggest pile of crates, old furniture and tea chests. The wood was piled on a piece of waste-ground, usually a bomb or demolition site, or failing that, up against a gable at the street corner. In the last few days before “Bonefire Night”, older children stayed up all night to guard the precious wood, often building makeshift lean-to huts within the enormous pile itself. Weaker streets – those which had mostly younger children – were easy prey for bullies from up the road. I remember well the sense of pent-up anger and powerlessness I felt when a gang from Blackwater Street came along and brazenly wheeled away a lumpy sofa, which could not have been more precious had it been made for Louis XV himself.

The tension of excitement built up to peak on the Eleventh Night itself, when stocks of wood were moved into the middle of the street, ready for darkness. The requirements of traffic were ignored, and main thoroughfares like Sandy Row and the Shankill Road were cut off by bonfires being lit in the centre of the road, at every street corner, for a mile or more. These two roads were particularly lavish in their preparations for the celebrations: kerbstones were painted alternately in read, white and blue, as were lamp posts and poles of any description. Huge murals, usually depicting “King Billy” on his white charger, were painstakingly portrayed in the medium of housepaints on gable walls with as much devotion as Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, albeit with considerably less skill. Many of the more dedicated streets had red, white and blue bunting strung from opposite upstairs windows and every Protestant street had a Union Jack flying from every house. And a really dedicated street would make a “Pope” out of stuffed rags to be burnt on the 11th. The unfortunate “pope” would be exhibited for a week beforehand in someone’s parlour window, so that passers-by could admire the sill and dedication that had gone into his construction.

In our street, there was only one Catholic family when I was small (although there were very quickly more, eventually becoming the majority themselves). No one displayed any animosity towards them though, and they were happy to contribute to a collection for lemonade and crisps for the children. Although their own children did not join in the evening’s festivities, someone always made sure they had some lemonade delivered to the door.

Once the bonfires were lit, there were always various contingency schemes proposed in case of the fire causing damage; some schemes considerably less logical than others. One scientific character decided to put a water-soaked sack over the top of a gas street lamp to prevent the heat from cracking the glass. Not long afterwards, the sack had dried and burst into flames – cracking all the glass inside it! Those families who lived on the street corner, where the bonfire was only a few feet away, usually doused their windows with buckets of water.

Most of the small streets’ bonfires died down by midnight or one o’clock, but down Sandy Row the festivities continued right through the night. Sandy Row prided itself on having “arches”, which were scaffolding-and-plywood constructions in the form of a mediaeval gateway over the road. The rest of the year, these were broken down and kept down somebody’s back entry, but were displayed for the entire month of July every year. Various insignia and battle place names were inscribed over the archways; the biggest and grandest arch being strategically placed outside the Orange Hall, of course.

Next morning, erstwhile revellers would drag themselves out of bed, after only a couple of hours’ sleep, don their Sunday best, and wend their way around the still smouldering piles of ashes and springs, to their Orange Hall, where the lodges assembled to march to The Field.




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